Power and sway in boxing, from a fighter's perspective, can come from a lot of things.
Popularity and notoriety are key -- if a fighter isn't well-known, they can't be particularly powerful, and can't really call many shots. The right connections, be it a promoter, a manager, or an Al Haymon, or even just a network and/or sanctioning body backing your play consistently, also play a major role.
Credibility can matter, though it doesn't have to be there. Being the most attractive and desirable option in your weight class, not to mention the one below and the one above, can single-handed make you a powerful fighter, judging on the curve.
Some fighters have to take anything they can get. Some fighters jump for joy just getting a single serious opportunity. Other fighters, though, have it a little easier, either because they've earned it by paying their dues, or because they're somebody's chosen one.
Just for kicks, here are my picks for the current ten most powerful fighters in the world of professional boxing. But first, some honorable (in some cases) mentions.
Not too long ago, Amir Khan would have been on this list, without question. With fame on both sides of the Atlantic, a power promoter, the world's most famous fight trainer, and heavy backing from HBO, Khan wasn't quite a superstar, but he had a lot of pull. He could, generally speaking, get fights on his terms. After two straight losses, it's rehab time. He's stepping back to facing a lightweight prospect in his next fight, has hired a new trainer in Virgil Hunter, and his HBO deal has expired. Like in the ring, Khan has most of the tools to be a star. Between the bells, his chin and recklessness let him down. Outside of the squared circle, his personality rubs people the wrong way too often, and I don't think that helps him come out of rough patches easily. He's someone who needs to win to maintain his stroke.
David Haye would be up this list a ways if he really felt like it, but Haye's not really a professional boxer as much as he is a fringe celebrity who occasionally boxes now. He is only interested in the Klitschkos, and has given no public thought whatsoever to fighting anyone besides Vitali next. If he can't land Vitali, he might have to start another ruckus at a press conference to come up with a reason to get back in the ring. The thing is, Haye sells a fight as well as anyone in the sport. He's a good actor (I mean that as a compliment), highly charismatic, and is alternately funny and majorly obnoxious, but in a way that sells tickets. His fight with Dereck Chisora, hardly a star, was one of the absolute biggest fights of 2012, whether anyone likes it or not. Haye actually has a lot of power, but no intention of using it -- sort of like the Wladimir fight last year.
Adrien Broner is going to be here if he keeps winning. His interviews suck, but he knows the audience he's targeting, and whether he's a "Knee High Floyd," as Robert Guerrero put it, or the real deal, or just kind of a goofy kid who hasn't fully matured personality-wise, he attracts attention constantly. He also has major league talent. He's already got Haymon, and HBO is clearly in love with his potential.
You could probably argue that Bernard Hopkins could still be here, given that he always does good HBO ratings (though he's a miserable PPV non-draw), and given that he's famous and legendary and all that. I'm often surprised by how many random people know who Bernard is when the subject of what it is I do all day when I'm not at the bar comes up at the bar. But he's 47 years old and he lost his last fight clearly to a guy who just got trucked by Andre Ward. Hopkins is still powerful, but I don't think he has the leverage he had right after he upset Pascal. The division around him didn't help whatever's left of his staying power, either.
Nonito Donaire is an interesting case. At 122 pounds, which is my pick for boxing's current best division, he's The Guy, even if some feel he needs to beat Toshiaki Nishioka on October 13 to truly be The Guy. But we're not talking about boxing rankings here -- Donaire is the division's most notable fighter, and he's the first person everyone talks about when they discuss what they want to do in the weight class. Nishioka's fighting him, Mares and Rigondeaux want to, and Jorge Arce uses his name for headline attention all the time.
Before moving on, there are a lot of guys overseas -- Sturm, Abraham, Povetkin, Kessler -- who do have a lot of power, but they tend to use it in a smaller, safer environment. The markets for selling tickets to boxing are very different in Europe and the United States. It's easier to sell tickets in Europe, because the sport and the name fighters in particular are more popular, but the same level of actual fight here as Kessler-Magee (which will sell great in December in Denmark) just wouldn't be that big of a deal. I realize this is going to look very America-centric, so I thought I'd mention that. I didn't ignore those guys and their situations, I just don't think they're all that comparable.
THE TOP TEN
10. Andre Ward
Strengths: Credibility, Network Backing (HBO), Belief That American Fight Fans Really Care Where Boxers Are From
Andre Ward isn't a big money fighter in the traditional sense, but he's become the super middleweight Klitschko, cleaning out the division and telling everyone else what they'll be doing if the want to fight him. Carl Froch may scoff at the idea of fighting the "boring git" in a rematch, but Ward is in a really enviable position right now in most ways. Sure, opponents are running low, but he can go up to 175 and find fresh matchups, even a rematch with Chad Dawson that "this time could be different," being at Dawson's weight and all.
A lot of the time when Ward is brought up, the conversation turns to whether or not he can be a superstar. I don't know -- I think he can, but don't know that he will. HBO backing will make a major difference if he's pushed right and gets the correct fights. Right now, he has some sway. But that could go away. As technically excellent as he is in the ring, he doesn't seem at all concerned with doing some of the side nonsense that could bring more attention his way. He's not a trash talker at all, never saying anything bad about is opponents, and even something as minor as that can make him a tough sell. But in terms of credibility, he's earned that by beating everyone put in front of him, just like Wladimir and Vitali, the biggest nice guy stars in boxing.
9. Sergio Martinez
Strengths: Credibility, Network Backing (HBO), Fashion Sense
Speaking of nice guy stars and credibility, here's Sergio Martinez, whose overall stock shot up big-time thanks to a win that may not even be against one of the five best fighters he's ever faced. Like I've said before, it wasn't Martinez's best win, or even close to that. But it was his biggest. At 37, he's on the map now, and has some leverage.
Sergio is in a position where he can go back to 154 if a major fight calls against Floyd, Canelo, or Cotto, and it could conceivably happen. Cotto can be unpredictable on opponent choices, so maybe he'll get the itch to knock off the world's middleweight champion. And if Floyd Mayweather starts feeling like this is the fight, then this will be the fight. Or, Sergio can stay at 160, where he's the recognized man in the division and can fight anyone he so chooses. Like Ward, he has somewhat limited options, but HBO is firmly behind him and have been for a while now (that WBC/Zbik misstep aside), and he just became a bigger star than he's ever been before.
8. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr
Strengths: Drawing Power, Promoter (Top Rank), Sanctioning Body Favoritism (WBC), Network Backing (HBO), Passionate Fan Base, Role Model For Entitled Slackers Everywhere
For 11 rounds on September 15, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr came perilously close to lethargically pissing away all the goodwill of the giant fan base who have supported him almost entirely because his name is Julio Cesar Chavez. Then, with one dramatic charge in the 12th round, he convinced more than enough people that he was thisclose to pulling it off, that I don't think his popularity took much of a hit at all.
Sure, the more boxing-serious of his fans know he got his ass whipped and that his 12th round alone doesn't make up for that, but there is money in a rematch with Martinez in about a year, when that will be possible, and his marijuana drug test failure just doesn't register for most people, who seem to not give much of a crap about him failing a drug test for marijuana other than it makes him a dummy. It's not steroids. No one's calling him a cheat. I feel like if there were boxing hipsters, Chavez Jr would be really popular with them as sort of an ironic semi-comedy character. And he's still the money man at 160 pounds. He can sell the most tickets, and will demand the biggest TV money. It's good to be the king's son sometimes.
7. Ricky Hatton
Strengths: Drawing Power, Passionate Fan Base, Self-Promoted, Sense Of Humor
Ricky Hatton is going to sell out Manchester Arena for a fight with Vyachelsav Senchenko, and it was basically sold out before he ever even named an opponent. Hatton may be one-and-done with this comeback (it's a very real possibility), but he's already proven that he remains one of the most beloved fighters in the sport. Local or domestic fan bases don't come easily anymore; with the sport's popularity plateaued at "fringe" and bad economies everywhere, this comeback could potentially have not been the big news Hatton envisioned. But it is.
People just like Ricky Hatton, I think. I always have. He's easy to root for, easy to enjoy as a person. He's never taken himself all that seriously, which is always a nice change of pace from all of boxing's steely-eyed macho bullshit, which is real and something to be expected given the subject, but still gets tiresome at times. He's been his generation of boxing's version of Dusty Rhodes.
6. Juan Manuel Marquez
Strengths: Credibility, Passionate Fan Base, Being The Weight That Manny Pacquiao Can't Get Off His Chest No Matter What
For a long, long time, Marquez wasn't considered a superstar, or even really a star. He was a fight fan's fan favorite, a guy that everyone knew was one of the best in the world, but who had some tough decisions go against him (Pacquiao I & II) and made some questionable business decisions. He also didn't fight in his native country between 1994 and 2011, an odd choice considering how much Mexico's rich boxing culture can boost a fighter's popularity.
Really, Marquez got here last year. When he fought Manny Pacquiao in 2004, it was just a diehard fan's dream fight. When they rematched in 2008, it set a record for fighters their size on pay-per-view, but it wasn't a mega-fight or anything -- once again, more a diehard fan's dream fight. Last year, though, was different. Pacquiao had become a huge superstar nine months after their last meeting when he retired Oscar De La Hoya, and a lot of people saw their first Pacquiao-Marquez fight in 2011, not 2004, and not even 2008. As tired as the issue may have been for dedicated fans of the sport, it was a fresh matchup for a lot of people, and they saw a guy who gave Pacquiao his first really stern challenge since the last time they'd fought. Marquez made a lot of new fans in 2011, and made a lot of his old fans appreciate his ability all over again. Finally, he became the star fighter he'd deserved to be for years.
5. Canelo Alvarez
Strengths: Drawing Power, Power Promoter (Golden Boy), Network Backing (Anyone), Sanctioning Body Favoritism (WBC), Passionate Fan Base, Unique Name And/Or Appearance, "It" Factor
At 22, Canelo Alvarez is by far the youngest fighter on this list, with everyone else besides Chavez Jr (26) and Ward (28) in their 30s and either on the other side of the hill, or teetering at the top, leaning the wrong way. Of course, Canelo could go, "POOF!" any fight. He still hasn't had that step-up matchup, but right now, he's got a lot going for him.
He's popular in a different way, sort of like Oscar De La Hoya was popular, but it didn't come from the Olympics and a quasi-teen idol figure, it came from having red hair and getting ladies of all ages mad frisky. In the ring, he's as much a prospect as he is a world champion still. He's still very, very young, and despite his amount of fights, he's been matched carefully to the point that he still does need a credibility breakthrough, if not one for his popularity. It sounds like 2013 is the year, with either Miguel Cotto or Floyd Mayweather waiting for him sooner than later. As stands right now, he's popular enough to sell out the "other" show in Las Vegas on one of the biggest boxing nights of 2012, and draw the best Nielsen-tracked rating for a Showtime fight in history.
4. Miguel Cotto
Strengths: Drawing Power, Passionate Fan Base, Credibility, Network Backing (Anyone), No Official Promoter - Will Work With Anyone, General Lack Of Human Emotion
Miguel Cotto can do whatever he wants. As I've mentioned before, I find Cotto's current status fascinating because what he does is up to him. With no official promoter, Cotto can take the best offer out there, with either Top Rank or Golden Boy, and nobody seems to have any beef with him, ever. Golden Boy are delighted to work with him. Top Rank will be delighted to work with him again if that happens.
Cotto is a money machine -- he's not Pacquiao or Mayweather, but he is one of the only guys in the sport who can get big fights in New York these days, taxes and all, where he has the home field advantage in front of an adoring, fiercely loyal fan base. And he's powerful enough to tell Manny Pacquiao no thank you two times in a single year. He's got about the most enviable position there is outside of Floyd and Manny. Nobody tells Miguel Cotto what to do, who to fight, or when to fight. Every decision he makes comes from him, not from a promoter. If he doesn't like a fight, he passes on it. If he does, he takes it.
3. Wladimir & Vitali Klitschko
Strengths: Drawing Power, Credibility, Heavyweight Fetishism, Self-Promoted, Strength (Physically)
Gentlemen they are, more than one opponent has stated the opinion that the Klitschkos are bullies in negotiations and on fight nights. If you want to fight Wladimir or Vitali, you will fight them under their rules. That's what made Wladimir vs Haye so significant; Haye actually had enough stroke to get the Klitschko camp to bend a bit. And that's why Vitali-Haye might never happen, Vitali's political aspirations aside. The Klitschko team doesn't want to deal with Haye and Adam Booth. They're a pain in the ass, and the brothers can sell out arenas without their press nemesis. They don't make as much money as they could, perhaps, but the Klitschkos don't seem greedy.
They're about as credible as it gets, too. They've owned what once was boxing's glory division, and outside of the States, still is for the most part. The decline of the heavyweight division is what it is, but these two have been the real deal for years. They earned their way here, and they're smart enough to protect what's theirs.
2. Manny Pacquiao
Strengths: Drawing Power, Passionate Fan Base, Credibility, Mass Media Exposure, Network Backing (HBO), Power Promoter (Top Rank), Ability To Enjoy The Simple Things In Life Such As Making The Fans Happy With A Good Fight
Manny Pacquiao officially lost his last fight, and lost nothing because of it, other than a title belt that most people probably have to look up to remember which one it was. It wasn't the green one. Pacquiao being able to say, "Eh, I don't want to fight Timothy Bradley again," and having nobody but Team Bradley complain about the choice is pretty telling. He's still uber-powerful, and everyone except the one guy needs him a lot more than he needs them.
Manny is at an interesting point in his career, as are many of these guys. The guard will eventually start changing rapidly, and suddenly Manny Pacquiao and a lot of these fighters will be gone, or not the big deal they are now anyway, and new stars will come along. Pacquiao is on the brink of that. His in-ring ability is declining naturally with his age and the sort of career he's head, but he remains probably the most recognizable global star in the sport.
1. Floyd Mayweather
Strengths: Drawing Power, Credibility, Mass Media Exposure, Network Backing (HBO), "Self-Promoted," No Official Promoter - Will Work With Golden Boy, Al Haymon, Friendship With
50 Cent Lil Wayne?
Floyd's the king, pound-for-pound and dollar-for-dollar, and Mayweather can say yes or no to whatever the hell he wants. The yahoos on First Take can stage whatever phony argument they want, and sure it's kind of lame that Leonard Ellerbe gets all puffy-chested about Manny Pacquiao quotes (the same way he did to an 80-year-old Larry Merchant last year when Floyd had a tantrum), but the fact is, Floyd does dictate to every opponent. What Floyd says goes, because you can't make more money than you can make with Floyd. And we're not even talking percentages.
It's an open question right now of where Floyd is at with his boxing career, and murmurs that he's considering his next "retirement" are getting louder every week, it seems. But Mayweather would be crazy to walk away now. He's still the best boxer in the world, and there's a lot of money left to make. My gut feeling is he's just waiting for the right opponent to spring up. Andre Berto is fighting someone later this year, and if he wins, it could be him. It could be Sergio Martinez. It could be Canelo Alvarez. It could be a Miguel Cotto rematch. It could be Man--nah, let's not.